What happens when a reporter calls your charity? Does everyone at your organization dive under their desks, hoping that they won’t be asked to speak on television, or give an interview?
I know I used to run from calls from reporters. But that was before I really understood what made a good story. Media relations isn’t just reacting to current events or crises. It’s about thoughtfully crafting compelling stories that reporters will be interested in covering. And with charities averaging 2 media hits per week, there is ample opportunity to tell your charity’s story.
Small organizations are uniquely positioned to address issues at the local level, but can be intimidated, and sometimes outshone by larger organizations. Sometimes it feels like smaller charities just can’t compete with those large healthcare and arts budgets. But it’s really a myth that you need to invest a lot of money to see your name in the headlines.
The truth is you can easily run a good media relations program on a shoestring. You don’t need a big budget, but what you do need is a good story and a solid strategy.
1. Publish research, reports or whitepapers
If your charity leads research, or publishes reports and whitepapers, you can turn these into news stories that reporters might just pick up on. Do you have new statistics? Controversial public opinion polling numbers? White papers about your position on a particular topic? These are excellent starting points to build a newsworthy story from.
Keep in mind, your research or whitepaper is not the story itself. The story is in how it connects to real life people, the work that you do, and the position you are taking. So don’t just put out a press release saying “we published this.”
2. Take a stance
Advocacy can be a tricky realm for charities. With limits around charities’ participation in advocacy, taking a firm stance on an issue can seem risky, but it’s a great way to grab a reporter’s attention.
Is there an issue your charity is strongly in favour of, or are completely opposed to? This is an especially effective tactic if the particular issue is already top of mind. When your cause is in the news, reach out to reporters covering the issue, and write op-eds and blogs on your website to get the word out about your position.
3. Build relationships with and steward your media list
Remember, reporters and journalists are people with interests and passions. Start building relationships with the reporters on your media list.
You can apply a lot of the same tactics here that you’d use for traditional donor stewardship. Send thank you notes after a reporter covers your issue. Mail hand-written holiday cards, or share articles you’ve come across that might be of interest to that reporter. A little can go a long way, and will help you stay top of mind when reporters are looking for commentary on a particular issue.
4. Develop and tailor your pitch
If you’re looking for good quality media hits, paying for a wire service to publish your press release may not be the best investment. Instead, use a media pitching plan to make the most of your release.
Take a look at your media list, and craft personal emails to the journalists who you want to cover your issue. Media pitches are short and punchy, and get straight to the point. Give your journalists as much lead time as you can, and make sure your news is relevant to what they normally cover.
5. Tell a story
One of the most important tools in your media toolkit is the stories you have to tell. Media outlets are interested in real stories about real people. When you’re thinking of reaching out to the media, be sure to connect it to the story about one of your beneficiaries.
In my experience, journalists will always respond to a press release or pitch by asking if there is someone whose personal story they can tell. So preempt that by being prepared. Know which beneficiaries you can connect them with, and take the time to brief those beneficiaries on the release.
6. Think outside the traditional media box
When most people think about “the news,” I’ll bet there are a few formats that pop to mind: print/digital, TV, and radio. But with the advent of self-publishing platforms, there’s a huge opportunity to publish your own news stories.
Look into platforms like Huffington Post that accept guest writers and columnists, and start submitting your stories there. You can use these crowdsourced news platforms to supplement an existing media campaign, or as an alternative to traditional news outlets. The great thing about these platforms is you control the message completely by submitting entire articles, and you can even link back to your website or campaign.
Co-Founder, Charity Savant
Ashleigh Saith is a fundraiser and nonprofit leader with years of experience working in small- and mid-sized nonprofits. She’s passionate about nonprofit marketing and leadership, and found herself with a shocking knack for finance. While out running, Ashleigh thinks about new ways that Charity Campus can help nonprofit staff and volunteers grow, learn, and connect with each other.